You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated (CDT Days 10-12)

“6 miles, it’s only six miles to the next tree,” I murmured to myself trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that far. I only had to hike six miles through the unrelenting heat and blazing sun of the New Mexican desert before I’d get to a tree and some hope of shade, after the tree it would be another 14 miles to get to the next water (a cattle trough).

I popped open my chrome dome (a shiny silver desert umbrella), tied it to my pack, and adjusted it so that it would shade as much of my body as possible. I would try to create my own shade until I got to the mythical tree which I hoped was up ahead somewhere. This was definitely not the tree-covered landscape of New England where there is so much water it’s in the air. Here there wasn’t enough water to sustain even one tree, not one!

As the day wore on it got hotter and hotter and the landscape got more and more desolate. The trail was littered with the bones of creatures that had learned how unforgiving the desert could be. People started decorating the trail signs with bones and then making trail signs out of bones. Too much time in desert or maybe too much sun was giving us a wry sense of humor.

Although I’ve done desert hiking before (including ~700 miles of Mojave desert on my PCT thru-hike), the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico was a whole new beast. The temperatures were in the low 100’s, but the real kicker was the abysmally low humidity ranging from 4% to 8%. The extremely low humidity meant I was going through a lot more water than I anticipated (1 or 2 liters more each day).

Eventually I made my way to the mythical shade tree and discovered that despite being a tree it didn’t provide much shade. Once again my chrome dome came to the rescue. I tied it to the tree to create some shade I could sit under and then checked in on my poor overworked feet.

In these extremely hot and dry conditions with 15-20 mile stretches between water lots of us were surprised to discover that our feet were developing blisters in places we’d never had blisters before: between the big toe and the next toe over and following down into the ball of the foot.

I ran into tons of hikers on the CDT that “never get blisters” yet all managed to get a variant of this blister, so I started calling it the “CDT special.” When I started developing the CDT Special I tried all the tricks I’d learned on my AT and PCT thru- hikes, but I couldn’t seem to prevent the blister on my right foot from growing, and I wasn’t able to prevent the one on my left foot from developing. I ended up taking a break for a couple of hours in the shade to pop the blister on my right foot, and let it air out before bandaging it up with lots of bacitracin and then hiking ever northward.

Later, I learned that the solution to this problem is toe socks, which keep your toes separated and keep the blisters from forming between them. I borrowed a pair from my friend Peru and didn’t have any more problems with blisters between my toes.

Labrador, pictured below, had the worst case of a CDT special I’d ever seen. To distract him from the pain of walking I made up a silly song about toes:

You gotta keep ’em separated

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine.

I used to feel 10, now I’m only feeling nine.

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine!

(During the peak heat of the day the desert is brutal, but everything is beautiful and awesome in the mornings and evenings when things are cooler.)

CDT Days 5-9: Rocking it!

“Is your pack full of rocks?” joked one of the other thru- hikers. At the time I could honestly say, “No, of course not.” However, less than 48 hours later, I was standing on the side of the CDT filling my pack with rocks.

Whenever I went for a walk or a hike as a kid I’d come home with my pockets full of interesting rocks I’d found along the way (If you ask my mom she’d probably tell you that the pockets of my jackets continued to be full of rocks well into college). After hiking thousands and thousands of miles and seeing millions and millions of rocks, I thought I’d been cured of my rock- collecting habits. I was wrong.

As I headed up into the mountains of New Mexico I started finding a weird type of volcanic rock that I’d never seen before. It reminded me of obsidian, but it was glassy white instead of black, and it had a slightly more fluid look to it. Some of it was translucent, some was blueish, and some off it had an orangey hue to it. Whatever it was it was clearly volcanic and it was something that I’d never seen before. Eventually I learned that it was a variety of chalcedony commonly referred to as agate. It was very cool, or at least looked like whitish molten rock that had been cooled quickly as it ran down the mountainsides ;)

I picked up a couple of small pieces that were particularly cool and interesting and suddenly found myself with rocks in my pockets.

As I continued my hike into Lordsburg I kept stumbling into veins of agate and found my eyes were constantly being drawn to the whitish rocks that were so different than any other volcanic rocks I’d ever seen before.

The desert temperatures were soaring with the first heat wave of the season, but I found the bubbly white veins of rock to be a pleasant distraction from the heat (especially on the up hills). The rock was definitely more bubbly as continued northwards and I wondered if that was because the rock there had cooled more quickly.

The sun was high in the midday sky when I discovered that the white rocks in trail had lost their fluid, glassy look, and were sparkling in the sun light instead.

I stooped down and picked up one of the sparkly rocks to look at it more closely. I erupted into a gigantic smile as I discovered that the rock was covered in small white crystals. My inner rockhound was unleashed as I looked up and realized that the entire hillside was sparkling with the kinds of crystals that I had dreamt of discovering (and spent countless hours searching for) as a kid.

“Oooh!” I exclaimed picking up a new rock and discovering more crystals, “Ahhh!” I exclaimed finding crystals with a more orangey tinge. Before I knew it both of my hands were full of small crystals and I was having trouble deciding which ones I should put down so I could pick up new ones.

My hands completely full, I stumbled onto a rock about the size of my fist that was covered in quartz crystals… “uh oh!” I didn’t have enough hands. My inner child froze with indecision, unwilling to put any crystals down, but equally unwilling to move on without picking up this cool new sparkling rock.

I took advantage of the sudden break in the excitement to do a little adulting. First, I put all the rocks and crystals down. I’d heard that rock collecting was allowed on public lands in New Mexico, but before filing my pack with rocks I wanted to double check. So I pulled up the New Mexico rockhounding guide on my phone as well as the basic BLM guidelines:

https://www.blm.gov/basic/rockhounding

Next I did a sanity check… how much time could I afford to spend looking for rocks? It was awfully hot and exposed on the hillside and I wouldn’t get another chance to get water until I got to Lordsburg… I was glad I’d carried extra water out from the water cache and figured that I shouldn’t spend more than an hour collecting rocks.

After a while I stopped searching for crystals and had to choose my favorites to load into my pack. It was so hard to choose, but one by one I wrapped each crystal-covered rock in my dirty laundry until I ran out of dirty laundry. When I hefted my pack onto my back it was about 10 lbs heavier.

“Leave it!” I admonished myself as I was impulsively drawn to each sparkling rock, “It is statistically unlikely that you’re going to find any crystals that are better than the ones already in your pack.” Besides it was getting hotter and hotter and I needed to focus on hiking up the hill.

About 10 minutes later, as I was struggling up the next hill I spotted a big crystal covered in dirt. “Statistically improbable,” I laughed as I bent down to brush it off and discovered a rock the size of a plate covered with large green and purple crystals each about the size of a quarter. It was the coolest rock that I’d ever seen in the wild.

All told I rolled into Lordsburg with about 15 pounds of awesome rocks in my pack and it turned out that the cool purple and green crystals were fluorite crystals (which glow purple under a black light as illustrated in the photo below).

CDT Day 1: The Divide

CDT Day 1: The Divide

The continental divide trail (CDT) snakes it’s way through the United States (from Mexico to Canada) separating the East, whose waterways drain into the Atlantic Ocean, from the West, whose waterways drain into the Pacific Ocean. This dividing line runs through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Standing at the southern terminus of the CDT, looking onto the parched landscape of the Chihuahuan desert it was hard to imagine water flowing anywhere here, never mind Oceans brimming over with it. Looking North the dusty flat landscape was dotted with scrub and faded into hazy mountains. To the South was a barbed wire fence, old, rusty, and stretching from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. This unmarked, unmanned barbed wire fence was the border between the dusty desert of Mexico and the dusty desert of the USA.

There were 4 off us setting of on CDT hikes that morning. For the first 7ish miles we kept pace with each other sharing the excitement of the beginning of New Journeys together, but soon we parted ways as our bodies settled into their own unique rhythms and paces, and before long I had the desert to myself without another soul (or sole) in sight.

I was glad to be hiking through the desert in spring when the cacti were in bloom and lending some color to the otherwise bleak landscape. The towering cocotillo with their red flowers lent an other worldly atmosphere to the desert.

Despite it being spring it would be more than a hundreds miles before the trail would lead me to any natural water sources, so my first water stop would be a water cache maintained by the CDT about 14 miles from the start. We’d stopped on our way to the terminus to top off the water at one of those caches.

I swear the remaining 7 miles to the cache were all uphill in the scorching desert sun. A blistering heat that was desperately trying to share its blisters with my feet. Every couple of hours I’d stop, let my feet air out, and change the insoles of my shoes.

Pulling into the final mile before the cache I started making up lyrics to an old New Kid’s on the block song:

Oh oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh

Out in the desert, I’m hot stuff.

Out in the desert, having some fun

As long as the sun is shining,

I’m hot stuff.

It was only day one, but the silly little ditties had already begun :)

Cruising into the water cache I caught up with Root Beer and his friend Osito hanging out under a bush with a water jug recuperating. Although they headed out just a couple of minutes after I got there, I caught up with them as darkness descended and the desert began to cool.

I’d spent my last night on the PCT with Root Beer, so it somehow seemed fitting to stop and make camp with him on the first night of my CDT journey. I carefully avoided the cacti as I rolled out my sleeping pad and bag under the darkening desert skies and waited for the first stars to appear. My journey North to Canada had begun!!